Column: How Facebook can help address America's 'gun epidemic'

In this Dec. 13, 2011 file photo, a sign with Facebook's "Like" logo is posted at Facebook headquarters near the office for the company's User Operations Safety Team in Menlo Park, Calif. After four months of testing outside the U.S., Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016, that "pretty soon" multiple new emotions will be added to the social network throughout the world. (Paul Sakuma, File/AP)

Our nation’s “gun epidemic” has been on the minds and hearts of virtually every American citizen, especially here in Connecticut. The frustration that Congress has failed to pass common sense gun control legislation, as we have in Connecticut following the tragedy of Sandy Hook, has only grown after each new shooting.

Those who claim we have become “desensitized” seem to belittle and ignore the heartache of victims’ family, friends and community time and time again – and shift the focus and blame away from the blatant irresponsibility of Republican Congressional leadership who have failed to act, whether because they are caught up in ideological battles or are unwilling to oppose the National Rifle Association.

As such, President Obama recently introduced a series of new executive orders aimed at reducing gun violence and making communities safer. These actions aim at expanding the scope and effectiveness of background checks, updating the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) laws to ensure that those who are in the business of selling firearms have a license and conduct background checks, no matter where the sales take place.

They also include more research on future gun safety technology, and an FBI overhaul of the current background check system to make it more effective, efficient and to increase reporting.

The Internet is one of these informal venues in which illegal gun sales, by unlicensed sellers and non-vetted customers, have historically occurred. A 2013 Washington Post article investigating the practices of Armslist.com, a online gun-sales network, concluded “no one really knows…how many guns bought online in the United States are acquired illegally or used in crimes.”

A 2011 investigation by the City of New York found that 54 percent of Armslist.com dealers were willing to sell their guns to undercover policeman, posing as purchasers, who told the dealer they “probably couldn’t pass a background check.”

In 2014, Facebook took some steps to limit gun sales on their site, such as blocking gun advertisements from minors. This past Friday, Facebook announced that it would ban all private sales of firearms on its site and Instagram entirely, a move aimed at targeting such shady, unlicensed online deals that circumvent background check laws.

Members found to be engaging in such illegal practices will either be banned, or the ways in which they are able to use the site will be severely limited. Facebook, unable and reassuring that it will not be scanning personal users’ messages looking for evidence of such sales, will rely on users reporting any violations. Licensed gun dealers will not be affected.  

“Today’s announcement is another positive step toward our shared goal of stopping illegal online gun sales once and for all,” Eric T. Schneiderman, Attorney General of New York, said. This is also following the establishment of an Internet Investigation Center to track illegal online firearms trafficking by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the $4 million investment President Obama announced to enhance the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network. 

Facebook’s leadership on this issue must be recognized and will surely make an impact. “In this country, we know that 40 percent of gun sales are through unlicensed dealers, without background checks,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, told Fast Company. “Licensed dealers don’t sell on Facebook.” 

The move is common sense and similar social network sites should be encouraged to follow suit. “What [Facebook is] doing is sending such an incredibly strong, sentinel signal to the world that America is working in the right direction on guns,” Watts said, “For them to take a stand and do the right thing gives cover to other businesses to do the right thing.” 

Currently, Facebook already prohibits the sale of illegal drugs through its site – illegal gun sales should not be any different. It is representative one of the many, straightforward ways in which we can address illegal gun sales and prevent even just more death at the hand of gun violence– but that we aren’t seeing any new federal laws on. 

The urgency of the “gun epidemic” demands the leadership of private citizens such as Mark Zuckerberg himself. We all must continue to call for the leadership of our elected officials and hold them accountable – simultaneously educating ourselves and those in our communities about the realities of the issue and its practical solutions, dispelling the false rhetoric.


Marissa Piccolo is associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marissa.piccolo@uconn.edu.